Dog-Owner Liability for Bites in the State of Washington

People usually don't think much about the danger of dog bites, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that nationally about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year.

Examples of common injuries and complications from dog bites include:

  • Open wounds especially of limbs, neck, head and trunk
  • Infections, some dangerous
  • Arm, wrist and hand bone fractures, followed by lower-limb fractures
  • Scarring and disfigurement
  • Internal injuries

Dog bites often require surgery to remove skin, take stitches, drain wounds or graft skin. Importantly, a dog-bite victim may also suffer significant emotional trauma, pain and suffering.

Washington Strict Liability Statute

The state of Washington has long had a law making a dog owner strictly liable for damages if the dog bites someone in a "public place" or if the person is "lawfully" in a "private place including the property of the owner of such dog." "Strict liability" means the owner is automatically liable even if he or she is in no way at fault in the incident. The statute specifically provides that it is irrelevant whether the dog had ever been aggressive before or whether the owner knew it had been vicious. However, statutory strict liability can be negated if the victim is found to have provoked the attack.

One issue that can arise is whether the dog-bite victim was "lawfully" on private property when the bite occurred. In other words, liability would be in question if the victim was bitten while illegally trespassing on the owner's private property. The law says that the victim is lawfully on the owner's property if he or she has the owner's "express or implied consent," but that consent cannot be implied if the property is "fenced or reasonably posted."

Presumably, by "reasonably posted," the law means that a dog-warning or no-trespassing sign would normally negate any implication of consent to be on the property.

Finally, another issue under the statute is who is considered a dog owner. Washington case law says that an "owner, keeper or harborer" is liable under the statute, but not his or her landlord.

Washington Common-Law Claims for Dog Bites

In addition to the statutory remedy, a dog-bite victim may sue in Washington state for common-law (court-made) remedies in strict liability and negligence:

  • If the owner knew the dog was dangerous, he or she can be strictly liable for harm inflicted by that dog.
  • If the owner did not know the dog was dangerous, he or she still may be liable for negligence, if the owner did not adequately control the dog under circumstances that could reasonably have been expected to result in injury, and the negligent behavior caused the injury.

Dog-bite damages can be significant. According to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, $18,200 was the average charge for a dog-bite-related hospitalization in 2008.

If you, your child or other loved one is hurt by a dog, it is in your best interest to consult as soon as possible with a personal injury attorney with dog-bite experience to learn about your legal options for recovery.